In “Ordinary Decent Criminal” (2000), Patrick Malahide played Commissioner Daly, a long-suffering, yet sadly not very competent Irish Garda commissioner tasked with bringing in thief/mastermind and Gary Stu criminal, Michael Lynch (Kevin Spacey). Ooohh, I did not like this movie – which can’t quite decide if it wants to be a black comedy/heist romp or something more serious, like a social commentary – but Patrick Malahide’s performance was not at all the reason why. He acquitted himself quite well with the material he was given. Read on if you dare…
The movie opens by setting up Lynch as a Lovable Scamp™ of a crim who’s robbing a bank with his trusted second-in-command, Tony Brady (David Hayman, last seen by me playing Jonas in “The Paradise“, so this was a bit of a surprise). The stolen cash is to pay off his defense lawyer who is currently defending Lynch in a bail hearing for a completely different robbery case. See? Lovable Scamp™. Unfortunately, the problem with Lovable Scamps™ is that unless they are very carefully written and acted, they can quickly become very irritating Gary Stus who are not a pleasure to watch and are downright annoying. As a matter of fact, Lynch is so cool for school that not only is he a successful crim, he’s involved in a polyamorous relationship with his wife, Christine (Linda Fiorentino) and her sister, Lisa (Helen Baxendale), both of whom have children by him and everyone’s just cool with it. Even the Gardaí constantly on his tail seem quite envious of him.
An Irate Commissioner
While out on bail, Lynch pulls off yet another robbery, this time of the dole (unemployment) office where he regularly collects benefits – Lovable Scamp™, remember – making an identity and vehicle switcheroo (a favourite tactic) with Tony in order to lead the Gardaí off, who are no more intelligent than Keystone Cops throughout the movie. They do manage to haul him in for questioning, whereby the rest of Lynch’s Merry Men use a backhoe to destroy one hole of a golf course in revenge and thereby incur the wrath of Commissioner Daly, who’s there the next day for some vital rest and relaxation with other senior Garda officers (how Lynch’s men knew it would be that particular golf course is never answered). In turn, Daly tears a strip off Detective Sergeant
Stannis Noel Quigley (Stephen Dillane) for it. Quigley is apparently the only competent officer the Gardaí have, and he spends a great deal of time rolling his eyes at Daly’s officious idiocy.
Now at this point, a word about Irish accents. I don’t claim to be a connoisseur, but Spacey does attempt to use one – or several – throughout the movie and they seem to wander away frequently, sometimes in the middle of a sentence, and when they wander back, sometimes they’re not the same as when they left. It’s actually very distracting. Fiorentino and Baxendale suffer from the same thing, but they’re not on screen as much so it’s not quite as obviously bad. It’s especially noticeable when Spacey’s in a scene with an authentically accented actor, like Colin Farrell (playing the young, hot-headed Alec, another of Lynch’s gang) and it has the effect of yanking the viewer out of the movie. Thankfully, both Dillane and Malahide (especially Malahide) employ consistent and believable Irish accents throughout, which made up in some small fashion for the Gardaí being written as so incredibly incompetent. Okay, now back to the story.
A Really Big Heist
After a £2 million jewelry factory gold heist goes awry when the loot gets lost during an attempt to transport it out of the country, and after a bit of bragging to an IRA operative, Jerome Higgins (Tim Loane), who’s trying to strongarm Lynch into collaboration, Lynch decides to pull off something really big; an art heist, coinciding with an exhibit of the paintings of 17th Century artist Michelangelo Merisi da Caravaggio in the National Gallery of Ireland. Lynch is particularly interested in a painting titled “The Taking of Christ“, which was considered lost until recently discovered hanging in the Dublin Jesuits’ dining hall – and that last bit is actually true. The Jesuits (in the movie) also happen to have an exact copy of the painting, given to them in return for donating the original to the gallery.
So disguised as (painfully stereotypical) American tourists, Lynch and his gang steal “The Taking of Christ”, which is worth some £30 million, plus a few other works they just happen to lay their hands on. They lift paintings off the walls and brazen their way out of the gallery – firing a shot or two, but no one’s hurt or killed because hey, Gary Stu – and the Gardaí attempt pursuit but are defeated when another painting is sacrificially thrown out of the back of the getaway van at their car. Lynch gloats over their success and it’s arranged that Alec and his eyebrows will go to Amsterdam to look for a potential fence.
The Gardaí Are On the Case (Sort of)
Meanwhile, Quigley has been studying surveillance footage of the robbery and presents his findings to Daly. You can tell Quigley is the S-M-R-T one because he’s holding a book helpfully titled Italian Painting in very large letters, showing (as obviously as possible) that he does his research. With the help of some C.S.I.-type software, Quigley has correctly put together the entire scenario, from the “Judas kiss” signalling the start of the heist to Lynch’s museum visit with Christine a few days earlier to case the joint – which of course means that Daly, being the self-important idiot that he is, has to pooh-pooh the entire thing as “a coincidence”. Daly doesn’t believe that 17th Century art theft is within Lynch’s “league”, and really doesn’t want to look stupid presenting such a theory to Interpol: “If my training with the FBI has taught me anything, it’s that these specialist robberies are the preserve of a few international gangs.”
Predictably, almost the next shot is of an Interpol agent, De Heer (Herbert Knaup), telling Daly and Quigley that the painting theft M.O. doesn’t fit any international organization, so the crime was likely perpetrated by a local Irish gang, whereupon Daly immediately (and smugly) takes credit for Quigley’s deductions: “We’re pretty confident at this stage that this is the work of a gang led by Michael Lynch,” whose methods Daly says he’s “personally familiar” with (picture much disgusted eyerolling by Quigley here). De Heer also tells them that a fence named Peter (Christoph Waltz) has already made contact with someone in Dublin and will be carrying a bug during the deal. While all of this is going on, Lynch sneaks into Peter’s hotel room and discovers Interpol documents revealing that he’s a stooge, thereby removing any dramatic tension. Of course Lynch wouldn’t get caught that way, he’s just too damn good! Moreover, Lynch discovers the hidden microphone Peter’s carrying! Gary Stu!
Garda Task Force in Action
Daly organizes a task force to listen in to the deal and be ready to swoop down on the thieves while Peter the Fence is taken to a remote outdoor location to view the painting. A Garda spotter plane is put in the air to track the vehicle Peter’s in; he vainly (and very clumsily) tries to engage Colin Farrell’s eyebrows in direct conversation about where they’re going or the painting they’ll be seeing in order to get some information back to the police. Why they bother to show him the painting at all after finding out he’s an Interpol plant is a bit of a mystery, but they do, with Lynch silently revealing at the same time that they know he’s a stooge. Lynch then loudly announces several times that they’re heading back to the village of Roundwood and Daly falls for it completely, committing all of his ground forces to blockading roads in and out. Sigh. Really?? There wouldn’t be some skepticism there after how wily Lynch has proven to be in the past?? The plane or perhaps some cars wouldn’t have been kept back in case he went another route?? No one twigs that Lynch’s repeated announcements of their destination seem a very obvious attempt to mislead? But no, the police are being written to be very stupid in this case.
The plane and police cars all lose track of Lynch’s car and Lynch drops off a bound and gagged Peter in Dublin – they’re Good Guy™ criminals and wouldn’t think of killing him – as Daly realizes that his task force has utterly failed. But in the aftermath, at least Tony asks Lynch the question that was bugging me: why go through it in the first place if he knew Peter was a fake? Lynch replies that it was just to make the police feel “so stupid” and like they’d never get the better of him, further confirming Quigley’s earlier description of Lynch as a crim who likes nothing so much as to show off – Lovable Scamp™, remember.
Turning Up the Heat
Lynch decides to dispose of the hot property by swapping it for the Dublin Jesuits’ copy of the painting, unbeknownst to them or his gang, while Quigley organizes the rest of the detective sergeants and constables into a detailed program of harassment to put pressure on Lynch. Apparently Quigley is the only person in Dublin who’s anywhere close to Lynch’s intellectual equal, because he’s the only one able to defeat Lynch’s usual methods of losing tails. Quigley further turns up the heat by seeing that Lynch’s dole payments are cut off and then even Lynch’s gang begins to mutiny, saying that they should accept an IRA deal to take the painting off of their hands.
A Final Heist
The final plan… is perhaps the most stupid of all. Higgins, the IRA man most of Lynch’s men have defected to, decides to stage a bank robbery to distract the Gardaí watching Lynch and his gang, while two of Lynch’s men go to retrieve the painting. Tony, who has stayed loyal, reveals the plan to Lynch, who (correctly – Gary Stu) predicts Higgins is actually going to sell out Lynch’s gang to the Gardaí, so Lynch decides to… circumvent it. He gets to the bank first and guns down the IRA robbers before they can leave the bank with the money. He first sends out Tony in surrender, wearing his (Lynch’s) motorcycle helmet and face mask and pretending to be him, along with a panicked mob of bank customers as a distraction so Tony can get away with the money. Conveniently, the Gardaí haven’t yet had time to handcuff Tony, which makes it a bit easier! There’s a bit of a stand-off with Lynch still in the bank… and here’s where I saw the ending a mile off.
Someone, supposedly Lynch (wearing his jacket, anyway, but we never get a good look at his face), exits the bank but the Gardaí are set off by a sudden gunshot and kill whoever it was in a hail of bullets – most of which are headshots (yeah, right! aren’t cops trained to aim for centre mass?) that destroy whoever-it-was’ face. We’ve already seen Lynch pull off numerous doppelganger switcheroos (including one only seconds before!), so not for one second did I think this was him – plus the fact that at no point in the entire movie has Lynch ever been placed in any sort of real danger at all, either of arrest or bodily harm. Afterwards, Quigley checks the bank but finds no sign of anyone else.
Identifying the Body (Sloppily)
Seemingly the same day(! what, no coroner’s examination??), Daly and Quigley are witnesses as Lynch’s “wives” identify his body, and here’s where it gets really stupid. Daly’s pretty plainly uncomfortable with the entire situation and wants it over with as soon as possible; he questions how they can possibly identify Lynch with his head in that state, but Quigley points out they may just need to examine the rest of him (yes, that) instead. Sobbing, the ladies positively identify Lynch, but their sobs turn to giggles just as soon as they’re out in the corridor – which apparently neither Daly nor Quigley hear. It seems there’s no need for further confirming identification by fingerprint, dental record, or DNA, because Daly then metaphorically dusts his hands in satisfaction, saying, “Right. That’s over. Well done,” before he leaves! Really?? A criminal famed for cunning plans and identity and appearance-swapping and you take the word of his wives (who are known to collaborate with him) at face (no pun intended) value?? This just seems far too unbelievably sloppy, even for Keystone Cops!
Being the S-M-R-T one, Quigley figures it out as he’s standing in the morgue – that Lynch substituted Higgins for himself and touched off the shooting, luckily(! some, like me, might say “unrealistically” or “far-fetchedly”) resulting in headshots that obscured Higgins’ face while Lynch escaped unscathed. Quigley goes on to attend Lynch’s “funeral” (where the wives do more smirking – they seem to have never heard of poker faces), but apparently never breathes a word of what he’s figured out to Daly or anyone else, for… some reason. Lynch escapes scot-free to some other part of Ireland, and his wives have the cash from the robbery, courtesy of Tony, and will presumably rejoin him later. In case you were wondering about the painting, it, Colin Farrell, and Colin Farrell’s eyebrows also perished in a hail of police gunfire, but fortunately that Lovable Scamp™ Lynch swapped away the real one first! Hmm, I wonder if he considered the possibility the Jesuits might be asked some uncomfortable questions once the swap was discovered… but if the Gardaí are as assiduous about identifying the destroyed fake painting as they are about identifying Lynch, the Jesuits have nothing to worry about.
The Good Bits and Bad Bits
I… really can’t recommend this movie. I really hate plot contrivances that bend things to the point of unreality, and I also really hate Gary Stu characters, and this has both. I could understand a charismatic, massively competent criminal who has a loyal and devoted gang, but the character should earn that designation, not get it because the audience is told he’s wonderful and the story is written around him to allow him to “win” all of the time. It would have helped, I think, had the lead been someone a bit more believable (with a better accent – that thing was very distracting) as a criminal mastermind, but it also would have helped had there been actual dramatic tension and danger for Lynch in the plot. Even when his gang was mutinying, I didn’t think he was ever in any serious difficulty; he was just so cool for school that there was never any doubt – which is very, very bad and boring.
Now, as for the good bits: both Patrick Malahide and Stephen Dillane acquitted themselves well with what they had to work with. Dillane got the meatier, more intelligent role, but Malahide was very effective in the (sadly) thankless role of the officious idiot Daly, who was obviously there mostly for comic relief. Bit of a waste, really. Personally, I think it would’ve been far more interesting if Daly were smarter, because it would’ve been that much more of a challenge for Lynch and a more complex, realistic story. Seriously, I don’t think Daly would make it all the way up to commissioner without some smarts to his credit. But I did enjoy Malahide’s lovely Irish accent and the way he wore a Garda commissioner’s uniform – he looked simply smashing in it.
If you’re really terribly curious, you can watch “Ordinary Decent Criminal” in its entirety on Youtube, or just scroll down for a gallery of the best parts.